'I told Rahul: "You have to become president. Taalne se nahin hoga (you can't avoid the responsibility any longer)".'
'Rahul said: "I will think about it".'
Aditi Phadnis reports.
"The mood was conciliatory. There were no attacks on anyone," said Congress MP and West Bengal Congress unit chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury about the Congress Working Committee meeting on October 16. That this -- the ambience -- needed bookmarking was significant in itself.
The meeting lasted four hours. The party passed several resolutions. But no words were exchanged. This is a marked departure from the last CWC held in January, when stunned party leaders saw Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot and party leader Ambika Soni aggressively turn on those who were asking for elections in the party and questioned their standing.
'Kaun pehchante hain aapko> ('Who recognises you? What is your identity, your place?)' asked Gehlot. This was directed clearly at party colleagues Anand Sharma and Ghulam Nabi Azad who spoke up on behalf of their colleagues, the so-called Group of 23, seeking party elections and a 'full-time' Congress president.
Sharma retaliated and said: 'Nobody has given you the right to be disrespectful.' Those present prevented the assembly from turning into a verbal brawl. Chowdhury, like others, was shaken.
At this meeting, Congress President Sonia Gandhi asserted herself. Her statement: 'I am, if you will allow me to say so, a full-time and hands-on Congress president...' came, even as privately G23 leaders said while no one had ever doubted her capacity for leadership, the central question had still not been addressed: Who is really running the Congress.
A case in point is the recent Rajya Sabha by-election from Maharashtra. The vacancy was caused by the death of Rajeev Shankarrao Satav, who headed the Youth Congress from 2010 and 2014 and worked closely with Rahul Gandhi to hold elections in the organisation for the first time in recent memory, later becoming a Rajya Sabha member. He had served barely six months of his tenure when he died.
His wife, Pradnya, a doctor, sought the Congress nomination. So did his mother, a long-time Congress worker. Instead, the seat was given to Rajni Patil, a leader from Beed who had defected to the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 1990s, returning to the Congress when Sonia took charge.
Patil was originally on the Congress list of candidates forwarded to Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari for inclusion as member of the Maharashtra legislative council. But Koshyari has been sitting on the recommendations for several months now.
Patil's name was struck off that list and upgraded to the Rajya Sabha while Satav's wife will likely be included in her place.
The net losers are former Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan and Congress General Secretary Mukul Wasnik. Both had let it be known they could contribute more in the Rajya Sabha.
One of them told Business Standard, Patil's nomination was a result of Rahul wanting to do right by Satav who was one of 'his boys', but Sonia baulking at getting involved in a family matter.
The Congress's Maharashtra unit is expected any day to send an amended letter to the governor, striking off Rajni Patil's name and replacing it with Dr Pradnya Satav. But it is a matter of opinion whether Patil will be the fiery speaker the Congress needs in the Upper House.
Chowdhury says he spoke up at the meeting urging Rahul to take up a more active role: "I said: 'You have to become president (of the party). Taalne se nahin hoga (you can't avoid the responsibility any longer)'."
He cited the Gandhis's proactive role in the Lakhimpur Kheri incident that forced the government to arrest a minister's son. He claims it was at his and others' urging that Rahul did not rule out the possibility altogether.
"He said: 'I will think about it'."
Cynics in the party say Chowdhury, and others like him, has been a beneficiary of dual decision-making in the Congress. He has continued as Pradesh Congress Committee chief although the Congress performance in the West Bengal assembly elections was the worst ever (in Chowdhury's own Beharampur parliamentary constituency, the party figured third in all assembly constituencies).
On the other hand, no one is surprised that the leadership decision was put off.
"We are supposed to have elections every five years. The party held elections last in 2017. So they have stuck to that schedule," said Sandeep Dikshit, former Congress MP from Delhi.
"As for Rahul, it is really up to him to decide. I'm not particularly surprised by any of this. What else did you expect? This was a meeting to include everybody. In the last CWC, some people had taken an 'anti' position. This is Mrs Gandhi's style -- that if there are differences, that's okay," Dikshit, who is the late Congress leader Sheila Dikshit's son, said.
G23 members refused to speak after Sonia's instruction at the CWC that "they needn't talk to me through the media".
"They're just looking for excuses to throw us out of the party," one said. But ahead of the CWC, there was talk of strong action against Kapil Sibal and others in their group. That didn't happen.
Winning or losing elections is part of politics, they said. What bothers them is the absence of a clear line of leadership.
Elections in the Congress will be held in September-October next year. But assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and other states will be held in between.
G23 is waiting to see the outcome of those polls.